The Japanese Ring cycle, derived from Koji Suzuki’s novel sequence, hasn’t ever fallen into inactivity, but there’s certainly been a falling-off of interest as the century has worn on … and, not incidentally, VHS machines and tapes have gone from ever-present household items to the equivalent of wax cylinders and horn gramophones. Hideo Nakata directed Ring (1999) and one of its many Japanese sequels, but also The Ring Two – sequel to the Gore Verbinski US remake – so he has almost as much of a creative stake in the franchise as Suzuki. Nakata returns to the series with Sadako, which aspires to put the series back on a serious footing in a way that Sadako vs Kayako and Rings didn’t, working from a script by Noriaki Sugihara – who previously contributed Sadako 3D 2 to the wayward franchise – is derived remotely from Suzuki’s novel Tides.
Aside from Sadako herself, no characters are carried over, and almost all of the trimmings are stripped out of the premise … the curse spread by tape is a dim memory, the well is barely glimpsed, the family history unexplored, and instead the film focuses on a shoreline cave where unwanted children were left to be drowned by the rising tide, and this version of Sadako is associated with that dank, dark, wet killing space with a far-off ring-shaped hole through which the moon shines rather than her usual well. A mysterious girl (Himeka Himejima) is believed by her hysterical mother to be the reincarnation of Sadako – though if the spook’s spirit is in the child, why is she still manifesting in her traditional lank-haired, white-shrouded, angular form? – and survives a fire intended to kill her. In a hospital, the girl is picked on and seems to display Sadako-like telekinetic powers, but she also attracts the semi-maternal interest of Mayu (Eliaza Ikeda), a grown-up orphan doctor who has been cautioned against getting too emotionally involved in problem cases. Mayu also feels responsible for her brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), who nade her miserable childhood bearable with his clowning, but has now stretched his talents thin by becoming a Jackass-like youtuber and tries to regain lost followers by venturing into the burned-out flat to make a scary clip. Incidentally, this is the fourth horror film I’ve seen this week in which being a youtuber is as much an invitation to get cursed and mangled as being on an archaeological expedition to a mummy’s tomb was in the days of classic horror – so perhaps this is a theme that could do with a rest for a bit.
With the girl in a coma and Kazuma missing, Mayu – who also gets threatened by a shears-wielding clingy patient – becomes this iteration of the saga’s personally-involved heroine, investigating the workings of the curse, teaming up with a sidekick (Takashi Tsukamoto as Kazuma’s social media manager), and finally venturing into a dark hole littered with bones to try to save people from the still-omni-malevolent Sadako. Getting away from the twisted and CGI-heavy trickery of the Sadako 3D films and the team-ups (after her bout with Kayako, Sadako faced off against other J-horror franchise fiends), Nakata keeps the whole thing very low-key and tries for a simmering intensity that is sometimes stretched a little thin. A limited colour palette, whispered anxiety, convincingly upsetting depictions of characters paralysed with fear, and pale clutching hands make the film chilly rather than terrifying. It’s complex and powerful emotionally, drawing on Japanese themes of family responsibility and the taboo of infanticide – but a little on the mild side as a scary movie, with an actual plot that seems more like a sketch than a finished work. It may be that too much has accrued to the franchise for it to get away with something as slight as this as a reboot – though I’d be surprised if this was the last we’d heard from the girl in the well.
Still “(C)2019 “Sadako” Film Partners”